January 26th, 2023Eireann O'grady

Capturing a Piece of History: Stories from Advocates Who Lawyered on Behalf of Incarcerated Individuals During the COVID Pandemic

“It feels like it needs to be documented that at this moment in time to be a public defender, it is like … screaming at a brick wall. That’s how it feels. And we have to keep screaming, because … [it’s] not an option to give up. Because people’s lives are at stake. But it feels like all of the structures of the system are stacked against us and stacked against our clients and are incredibly unfair … and during the pandemic … it has been taken to new levels, and that part should be documented, just the low we’ve reached, in how we treat human beings.” 

This is how Eva Schell, a public defender in Maryland, described what she hopes is not forgotten about advocating for incarcerated clients during COVID. She encapsulates well what we sought to do when this project was born—we wanted to collect firsthand accounts of this work to show in human terms how COVID impacted incarcerated people and their advocates. 

From the outset, the UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project has focused primarily on collecting and analyzing quantitative data, but that sort of information cannot tell the whole story. Each confirmed case in our database is a person with a story. At times, data may even distort our understanding of the experiences of people behind bars. For example, a low case count in a prison might suggest that administrators’ interventions have been successful; those locked inside and their advocates, however, might tell us that these figures are the result of extreme lockdowns disconnecting people from their families and friends. Reporters, researchers, litigators, activists, and oversight agencies have looked behind the numbers to understand the complex human impacts of this now years-long pandemic on people behind bars.

In March 2021, we began an oral history project to contribute to these efforts. This project sought to learn from advocates about both their own experiences of litigating and their clients’ experiences of living during harrowing times. We wanted to create an historical record of their efforts and a learning resource for future advocates who might face similar circumstances. The archive is now publicly available here

Our Project’s primary concern throughout the pandemic has been those who are incarcerated, and other organizations have done amazing work in collecting their crucial first-person accounts of the pandemic. For example, UC-Irvine’s Prison Pandemic project is a digital archive of stories from people who are incarcerated in California prisons and jails, their family members and loved ones, and the staff who work in these facilities. Mourning Our Losses is a collection of memorials to people who died of COVID while incarcerated or while working in carceral facilities. Exceptional reporting containing accounts from people in prison added further layers. 1 Our oral history project seeks to supplement these efforts by soliciting additional insights and stories from the people who were advocating for clients inside. 

Our 27 volunteers interviewed people from across the country engaged in varied forms of advocacy. Some did direct client work, trying to get medically vulnerable clients released, while others filed statewide class action lawsuits about access to masks and cleaning supplies. The stories were unique but many had similar themes. Many interviewees spoke about the secondary trauma this work caused and how hard it was seeing their clients suffer; they often felt helpless to intervene, at least in the immediate future. Others discussed how frustrating certain procedures or processes were considering the emergency situation. Brandon Buskey, Director of the ACLU Criminal Justice Reform Project, for example, explained:

“We would have these strategy discussions of … okay, there’s an outbreak at the jail. There’s no PPE. We’re getting these … reports from people … that we want to represent … confirming some of this stuff. But the safest thing to do is to figure out a way to communicate to them how to file a grievance about the fact that they don’t have PPE and there’s an outbreak at the jail, so that we can at least not worry about the PLRA exhaustion requirement before we go to a court and say there’s no PPE. And look, I get it, right. It’s nothing that I hadn’t seen before elsewhere in the law, but in this context, it just was like, really?”

Others shared advice to future advocates and talked about the logistical challenges of practicing remotely, especially without access to in-person visits with clients. Phil Mayor offered the following suggestions to people who might have to practice in similar circumstances:

“I would tell them to take it easy on themselves, because there’s going to be an emotionally damaging thing that you’re about to do, even if it’s a good fight. I think I would tell them to spend a lot of time upfront thinking about their logistics, how they’re going to communicate with their clients, establishing you know, confidential lines and figuring out how that workflow is gonna work between your team because building that plane while you fly it is really hard in the pressure of emergency litigation.”

Others discussed how hard COVID has been for families of incarcerated people, who sometimes did not know if their loved ones were sick and could not say goodbye before they died. Jim Davy, interviewed in May of 2021, spoke about one such experience:

“The thing that has even still surprised me a little bit in terms of how bad it has been, is the way that prison systems have just been completely cruel to family members on top of prisoners, right. The guy who died was in the hospital on a ventilator for about three weeks before he passed away. His family had been accustomed to talking to him every single day. And then one day just stopped hearing from him. They heard from another prisoner, that the guys thought he had been taken to a hospital, but they could never get that officially confirmed. They called the prison every day repeatedly trying to get any answers whatsoever. Just got stonewalled. The first they heard was a doctor at the hospital calling the guy’s daughter who was his power of attorney, asking if she wanted them to resuscitate him, because he was in organ failure. And that was the first that they, I think that was the first that they heard. They didn’t get to talk to him. They didn’t get to say goodbye. They didn’t get to visit him. They didn’t get to FaceTime, nothing like that. And instead had to say, ‘Oh, my God, yes. Fucking resuscitate him.’”

Interviews also covered topics like vaccine access, the role of the media in advocacy, and the use of solitary confinement. On our website, you can sort the transcripts to read about specific topics.

Our oral history project would not be possible without the dozens of legal practitioners who allowed us to interview them. We appreciate their time and candor in being interviewed. If you lawyered on behalf of people in custody during the pandemic and are interested in contributing to this project, please reach out to behindbars@law.ucla.edu to set up an interview. 

Our volunteers were trained by Teresa Barnett, the head of the UCLA Library Center for Oral History Research. We thank her and her office for guiding our approach to the project.

Lastly, this project required dozens of volunteers to conduct, transcribe, and edit the interviews. Thank you to the following people, many of who were students at UCLA Law, for making this project possible: 

Muna Ali, Cal Armijo, Andrea Capone, Monique Cardona, Eugine Choo, Adrianne Davies, Marena Dieden, Katelyn Eng, Alix Gonzalez, Lily Johnson, Jon Kaiman, Ankita Katukota, Natalie Kaufman, Ania Korpanty, Hadley Levenson, Alex Mark, Valerie Marquez, Bailey Miller, Anna Norkett, Eireann O’Grady, Ellie Pearce, Marcus Pipitone, Ali Stack, Paige Tobin, Claudine Ushana, Elif Yücel, and Olivia Zacks.

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February 19th, 2023Michael Everett and Lauren Woyczynski

UCLA Law Releases New Database to Monitor Deaths in U.S. Prisons

After three years of data collection, we are publishing our nationwide death-in-prison database. This database serves as a partial replacement for Department of Justice data reporting that effectively ended before the largest recorded year-to-year increase in prison deaths in two decades.